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13th-century Talmud

This is an exceptionally rare item: a Talmud from the Middle Ages that has somehow escaped the public burnings suffered by most of the other books of Jewish law at the time. Fortunately, it has survived unmutilated and uncensored.

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13th century Talmud

Babylonian Talmud Origin unknown, c.13th–14th century. Gemara
BL Add. MS 25717, ff. 72v-73
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud contains the Mishnah (oral law) and the Gemara ('Completion', written in Aramaic). The Mishnah was the first great creation of the rabbis, who were not clergy but came from all walks of life. It is a large collection of sayings, arguments and counter-arguments that touch on virtually all areas of life.

Over the three centuries following the compilation of the Mishnah, the rabbis added enormously to it with the Gemara: what they called a 'sea' of learning, using stories about both biblical personalities and their own lives, sober legal arguments and fanciful imaginings of the world of old and the world to come. They wrote it all down in multiple volumes that go under the name Talmud, 'Teaching'.

Why is this a 'Babylonian' Talmud?

The Talmud developed in two major centres of Jewish scholarship: Babylonia and Palestine. The Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud was completed c.350, and the Babylonian Talmud (the more complete and authoritative) was written down c.500, but was further edited for another two centuries. The Talmud served as the basis for all codes of rabbinic law.

From the Palestinian tradition of Jewish worship came the Ashkenazi rite used in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia. From the Babylonian tradition came the Sephardi rite followed in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. Both rites, as well as some others, are still practised in Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide.

In genealogical discussions, people often use the term Ashkenazi and Sephardic to describe Jews who come from the respective regions.

What is the significance of the Talmud?

Getting to grips with a Talmudic text can be demanding. While it is possible to read a page of the Bible in a matter of minutes, depending on the difficulty, a page of Talmud may take an hour or considerably more to go through with understanding. Traditionally it is studied with a partner or 'friend' in order to recreate the internal arguments and make sure that the subject in question, whether marriage, business ethics, capital punishment, property law or dietary regulations, has been examined from every conceivable angle. This kind of study leads to sharpness of mind, but also creates an intense community of shared ideas and visions.

Along with its companion literature, the Midrash (multiple collections of interpretations of the Bible, much like the interpretations and sermons on their own Scriptures by Christians and Muslims), the Talmud ensured that male Jews, who engaged in this study their whole lives, and their womenfolk, who were taught the stories (but not the legal material) in more popular form, were armoured against an often unfriendly outside world by their own internal world of values.

Why is this manuscript so rare?

During the Middle Ages the Talmud was the target of relentless condemnation, vilification and censorship by the Christian Church. Vicious hostility to its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents led to frequent public burnings, the first in Paris in 1242.

As a result, very few complete manuscripts of the Talmud have survived, and the remaining fragmentary ones are also rather scarce.

What do these pages show?

This manuscript (in square Ashkenazi hand) is an exceptionally rare specimen, which, fortunately, has not been censored or mutilated.

It shows the end of tractate Arakhin ('Valuations'), which deals with issues relating to the upkeep of the sanctuary, and the start of tractate Keritot ('Excisions'), which discusses sins that incur divine punishment.